Aya Itagaki: A Life in Motion; AVA Artist Taught by Example

  • Aya Itagaki sits while knitting at home in June 2007. Her calligraphy and souvenir collection from her trips hangs on the wall of the living room in her house. Itagaki has been teaching calligraphy in the area for decades since she came from Japan to the United States with her husband in 1964. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima)

    Aya Itagaki sits while knitting at home in June 2007. Her calligraphy and souvenir collection from her trips hangs on the wall of the living room in her house. Itagaki has been teaching calligraphy in the area for decades since she came from Japan to the United States with her husband in 1964. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima)

  • "Iris  2010" by Aya Itagaki

    "Iris 2010" by Aya Itagaki

  • "Stone Mind" by Aya Itagaki

    "Stone Mind" by Aya Itagaki

  • Eight-year-old Isabelle Brawley gets a lesson from Aya Itagaki at the Okinawan Karate Academy in Lebanon in June 2007. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima)

    Eight-year-old Isabelle Brawley gets a lesson from Aya Itagaki at the Okinawan Karate Academy in Lebanon in June 2007. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima)

  • Aya Itagaki sits while knitting at home in June 2007. Her calligraphy and souvenir collection from her trips hangs on the wall of the living room in her house. Itagaki has been teaching calligraphy in the area for decades since she came from Japan to the United States with her husband in 1964. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima)
  • "Iris  2010" by Aya Itagaki
  • "Stone Mind" by Aya Itagaki
  • Eight-year-old Isabelle Brawley gets a lesson from Aya Itagaki at the Okinawan Karate Academy in Lebanon in June 2007. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima)

Just a couple of weeks ago, Aya Itagaki was at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, rehearsing with Flock Dance Troupe for a performance early next month. It was a snowy day, and while many of her fellow dancers had stayed home, Itagaki had driven down from Fairlee to participate.

So it hardly seems possible to Bente Torjusen, who spoke with her that day, that Itagaki is gone. She suffered a massive stroke last Thursday and died Saturday after being taken off life support.

“There was no indication whatsoever,” Torjusen said.

Indeed, Itagaki, 79, was to the last a parcel of energy, a vibrant artist who had never stopped learning. In her nearly 50 years in the Upper Valley, Itagaki became known for her particularly graceful and forthright way of moving through the world.

Born in Japan in 1934, Itagaki moved to Hanover in the mid-1960s when her husband took a job at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

Traditional calligraphy is part of the school curriculum in Japan, and Itagaki never stopped practicing it, said her eldest child, Haruhiko “Harry” Itagaki. One of the things she enjoyed about brushwork was that it required long study, but the making of an ink drawing took seconds.

“It’s a decisive kind of thing,” Harry Itagaki said. “She was very decisive about everything she did.”

Torjusen recalled Aya Itagaki as a disciplined person who was also spontaneous. She was not a great housekeeper, but was a wonderful cook, Harry Itagaki said.

“There were more interesting and better things to do with her time,” he said, than to straighten up the books and dust lampshades. Her flair for cooking might have had something to do with growing up during World War II, when food was scarce. She was forced to leave Tokyo because of the firebombings.

“She didn’t really talk about the past very much,” Harry Itagaki said. “It informed who she was, but she didn’t allow it to limit her.”

Instead, she lived in the present, though much of that life was devoted to traditional Japanese crafts. In addition to practicing ink drawing, she taught it at AVA, pretty much as soon as the nonprofit art center’s education program began.

“She was one of the very first teachers at AVA,” said Elizabeth “Lili” Mayor, one of AVA’s founders. Itagaki was a wonderful teacher, Mayor said.

“She just had an inner enthusiasm that just came out,” Mayor said. Itagaki spoke with a strong, at times impenetrable accent, but her work was characterized by motion and she taught both her own children and her students through actions, not words.

“It was all almost a dance and a movement … more than having to understand her words,” Mayor said.

“It’s pretty much all by example,” Harry Itagaki said.

“She was difficult to understand,” said Kathleen Swift, who studied calligraphy and brush painting with Itagaki for 12 years. “But she was someone who approached each student exactly where they were.”

She also taught in the Japanese apprenticeship tradition, which prizes observation and requires students to steal knowledge from their masters as a way of demonstrating commitment. “She said that I had to steal her techniques,” Swift said.

Itagaki was also “sort of a one-woman Japanese cultural attache,” Swift said. She performed the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony and was a constant presence in schools. Swift came to know her through her visits to Hanover’s Ray School, where Itagaki embodied Japanese traditions.

Teaching young students helped draw Itagaki into karate. She taught calligraphy at the Okinawan Karate Academy in Lebanon, and took up the martial art at age 64.

“I think it’s safe to say that she felt compelled to educate me and she did exactly that,” said Ken Bladyka, the school’s director.

Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism that refers to a state of constant interest and openness to new ideas. It means “beginner’s mind,” and Itagaki embodied that quality, Bladyka said. “She sort of fearlessly pursued different things,” he said.

Not long after taking up karate, an 82-year-old woman who had earned her black belt at age 80 visited the Lebanon dojo. “My inside fire sparkled,” Itagaki wrote in a testimonial for the karate school. Seven years later she had earned her first-degree black belt.

Along the way, Itagaki won awards for her execution of katas, the successions of movements that make up the practice of karate. She earned national championships for practitioners age 55 and up in 2000, 2001 and 2007-9. She also earned a silver medal in a world karate competition in 2009, the same year she became a second-degree black belt.

“Aya had just an amazing style of movement that was just so elegant,” Bladyka said.

She also thrived on teaching the dojo’s youngest students. She taught after school every Wednesday up until two weeks ago. “She just had a whole bunch of adopted grandkids at the dojo,” Bladyka said.

Eric O’Leary got to know Itagaki as a student of Japanese brushwork. His father, Jack, founded Tariki Studio, which makes traditional Japanese stoneware in Meriden, an enterprise Eric now runs.

“When I met Aya, it was very easy for us to think and communicate primarily through the medium, rather than words,” O’Leary said.

He told a story about her sharp sense of humor. In 2002, O’Leary was planning a trip to Japan and Itagaki helped arrange a visit with a prominent temple builder. She suggested he make a business card as a way to break the ice, but said he needed a Japanese name. The last time she had visited Japan, she had had a seal made for him.

The name she chose, “Megumi,” related to the Buddhist concept of tariki, a form of enlightenment, and O’Leary was more than pleased. In Japan, he met up with a classmate from Kimball Union Academy who was a top executive in the country for Deutsche Bank. O’Leary met and exchanged business cards with a group of 20 executives at the bank.

As he moved down the line of bank officials, exchanging cards, “they take it and turn it over and look at it,” and O’Leary began to sense some quizzical looks among the bankers. His friend took a look at one of the cards and told him, “You do realize that’s a woman’s name.”

“We get to the end of the line and everybody’s being very restrained,” O’Leary said. So he decided that the best thing to do was to talk about his teacher, Aya Itagaki. As the translator spoke, “all these heads start nodding,” O’Leary said, and for the next two hours he talked with the bankers about the qualities of Japanese crafts and their links to aspects of Buddhist practice.

“Now I’m in Japan,” he said. He had broken through the surface and was truly immersed in Japanese culture as a result of the name Itagaki had chosen for him. “Humor always opens the door.”

“That was my sensei,” he added. “I really miss her.”

Aya Itagaki died as she lived, decisively. “She was never one to be wishy-washy,” Harry Itagaki said. She was on life support long enough for family and friends to gather round, and passed away an hour after being taken off life support.

“There wasn’t any choice in the matter,” Harry Itagaki said. “The stroke was so massive.”

Itagaki was active to the end, skiing with her grandchildren and taking lessons in traditional Japanese archery and in Japanese lute.

At AVA, where a scholarship fund has been set up in her memory, she will be remembered as a tireless worker who turned out whenever help was needed.

“Every time we had special events, there was nothing that could not be accomplished,” Torjusen said. “She just rolled up her sleeves.”

O’Leary saw Itagaki at an opening reception for an exhibition at KUA of fabric art made by his wife. “She was just really radiant,” he said. “Everybody commented on it.”

He asked her, “What are you working on right now?” a question less about art than about her current interests.

“She took her hands and brought them up” as if to nock an arrow and draw a bow. “‘I’m practicing archery’” she told him. “And she let go.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.